This afternoon President Obama and the First Lady will award the Medal of Freedom to 16 recipients. It's the country's highest civilian honor, but today's event is not without its controversy.
One of those being honored is the first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. But the White House has been peppered with questions as to why Robinson was chosen, for some Jewish groups believe the former Irish president has a history of anti-Israel bias.
The criticism stems mainly from Robinson's leadership of an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa back in 2001. The U.S. and Israel delegations walked out in the middle to protest what anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements expressed at the conference. Critics says Robinson did little to stop the rhetoric and accuse her inaction as evidence of her bias.
Robinson has also been criticized for a 2002 resolution approved by the UN Human Rights Commission that affirmed "the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation", a phrase some understood as an endorsement of Palestinian violence.
The White House has defended its decision to honor Ireland's first female president. "Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland, and she is somebody whom we are honoring as a prominent crusader of women's rights in Ireland and throughout the world," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs "There are statements that obviously she has made that the President doesn't agree with and that's probably true for a number of the people that the President is recognizing for their lifetime contributions."
As the White House press release announcing the recipients notes, the Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Today's other recipients include:
Nancy Goodman Brinker - founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world's leading breast cancer grass roots organization
Pedro José Greer, Jr. - founder of Camillus Health Concern, an agency that provides medical care to over 10,000 homeless patients
Stephen Hawking - the internationally recognized theoretical physicist
Jack Kemp - former professional football player, Congressman, HUD Secretary and Republican Nominee for Vice President. Kemp died in May of this year
Sen. Edward Kennedy - US Senator for 46 years on leading advocate for health care reform
Billie Jean King - former professional tennis player and champion of gender equality
Rev. Joseph Lowery - leader in the US civil rights movement
Joe Medicine Crow - High Bird - the last living Plains Indian war chief
Harvey Milk - the first openly gay elected official form a major city in the US. Milk was shot and killed in 1978
Sandra Day O'Connor - first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court. O'Connor retired in 2006
Sidney Poitier - first African American to be nominated and win a Best Actor Academy Award
Chita Rivera - entertainer, first Hispanic recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor
Janet Davison Rowley - human geneticist and first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers
Desmond Tutu - Anglican Archbishop and leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa
Muhammad Yunus - global leader in anti-poverty efforts, pioneered the use of "micro-loans" to provide credit to poor individuals without collateral